Monday, January 2, 2006

Rating the Marx Brothers

Zeppo, Harpo, Chico, & Groucho

by Chuck Rothman

I've been a Marx Brothers fan for as long as I can remember, possibly even before I saw any of their movies.  After all, it wasn't easy to see them back when I was growing up.

Let me paint the picture for the young 'uns.  I grew up in the 60s.  You couldn't go down to your local video store or Netflix queue and rent an old movie.  In big cities, there were revival houses, and colleges often would show older films, but outside of the cities and college towns, you were out of luck. 

I grew up in a small town at the eastern end of Long Island.  There was only one (single screen, of course) movie theater within a reasonable distance; it showed films that were about a month old.  You see, movies didn't open on thousands of screens back in Ye Olde Days -- they'd open in the big cities, then slowly wend their way out to the boonies -- maybe.  Some never got there.  And there were no revivals of old films, of course.

So I couldn't see the Marx Brothers in a theater.

The alternative was television.  That was also a problem.  Up until 1964, we only got two channels:  ABC and CBS.  In 1964, we added NBC -- but only if you got one of those new-fangled UHF converters.  My father sold TVs, so we had one, but few others did.

Around that time I mentioned The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to a friend at school.
"What channel is that?" he asked.
"Channel 30."
"What do you mean Channel 30? The dial only goes up to 13!" 

In 1964, we got cable, which brought in the New York City stations.  (We had it by the 1964 Great Northeast Blackout; we lived in the only place in the northeast that  had power the entire time, and the first indication that something was weird was seeing the NYC TV stations on generator power.)

But you had no pure movie channels, of course.  There were three independent NYC stations:  5 (WNEW), 9 (WOR), and 11 (WPIX), which did show movies, but they were skewed toward more recent films.  Certainly not something of the Marx Brothers' vintage.  And if they did, it was usually late at night -- too late for a 12-year-old to watch.

But I knew about the Marxes.  Groucho was the first, due, of course to "You Bet Your Life."  I watched the show and loved Groucho and his announcer, George Fenneman.  (Anyone else remember Fenneman's own show, "Your Funny, Funny Films" -- a precursor to "America's Funniest Home Videos"?)

Harpo, too, I knew about.  His image, of course, was in old cartoons, and I recall his autobiography being a big best seller.  Oddly, I remembered him mostly as the guy with the taxi horn; it wasn't until I saw a movie and he sat down to play a harp that it hit me -- that's where he got that name!

Chico was quite different.  I never realized he existed.  That was probably because if I saw anything of the Marxes in action, it was a brief clip featuring Groucho or Harpo.  Then, one day, I channel surfed (if switching back and forth between two channels can truly be called "surfing") and happened upon the Charles Goren's show.

Who is Charles Goren?  Well, he was the man who helped turned bridge (the card game) into a craze in the 50s and 60s, even bigger than Texas Hold 'Em is today.  He developed the standard method of evaluating a bridge hand.  If you play bridge . . . well, you probably don't.  Bridge is the most intellectually challenging of card games, but since it requires four people to play, and it takes time to learn, it has fallen by the wayside (though I see it's still doing OK online -- though nothing like poker or other games).  You may see Goren's name in a daily newspaper column:  Goren on Bridge, which is currently cowritten by Omar Sharif (yes, that Omar Sharif), which is probably so confusing ("Why isn't it called 'Sharif on Bridge'?  And what bridge is he talking about?"), it added to the end of the game's massive popularity.

In any case, Goren's show involved getting celebrities to show up and play bridge with him.  In this show, he was introducing one of his guests and made a bid deal about Chico Marx.  I couldn't believe it.  A third Marx Brother?  But the pictures proved it:  this guy with the pointy hat was standing with Harpo and Groucho.  It wasn't just a gag.

Oddly enough, when I watch the Marxes now, I usually laugh loudest at Chico.  Partly because I love a good pun -- and even a very, very bad one -- but mostly because people tend to quote Chico less, so you don't hear the lines all the time.

I discovered Zeppo when I caught the opening of "Duck Soup" a few years later.  Four of them. I like Zeppo, but he certainly doesn't have the talent to match his brothers, and I doubt he'd ever have been onscreen if it wasn't for them.  He's too lightweight to be a serious love interest, and he's not particularly good a telling a joke.  It's clear he was in the act only because they wanted four Marx Brothers and, though he tries hard, he just doesn't have the talent:  when he says a straight line, he "pushes" it too much. Consider in Monkey Business -- probably his best role -- when he says to the girl, 'I will always stay with you," you know immediately that he's about to run away.  Comedy is based on surprise, and Zeppo was unsurprising.

The first Marx Brothers film I saw in its entirety was -- sadly --The Big Store, their worst.  I thought it was funny enough, but I wanted to see more.  Finally, in college, they were willing to show some old films, and the Marx Brothers were top of the list.  This was the time in the early 70s when they were being rediscovered, so it wasn't hard to see them all during those years.  Also, as a student, I was able to stay up to see movies at odd times.

Once I caught up, I never looked back.

So, with the reminiscing out of the way, here are my rankings of the Marx Brothers movies:

The Coconuts
Rating: 9 (of 10)
Ranking Groucho's name:  Groucho had one of the greatest collections of funny names in film, and is one of the few who could be consistently funny (W. C. Fields is the other).  It's only fair to rank the twelve names he used in the 13 films.  In this one, he was Mr. Hammer (11 out of 12) -- undistinguished and uninteresting.
Favorite sequence:  "Why a Duck?"
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho: All along the river, those are all levees.
Chico: That's the Jewish neighborhood?
(I said I liked bad puns.)
Harpo moment:
"Did anyone tell you that you looked like the Prince of Wales?"

An auspicious debut, of course.  The Coconuts was one of the first Broadway musicals to be shot on film.  Sound film was new, and equipment bulky, so the camera moves less than the Rock of Gibraltar.  You get some nice "love" scenes with Margaret Dumont, and Harpo chasing blondes all over the place. 

Animal Crackers
Rating: 8
Ranking Groucho's Name: Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (10) -- could have been anyone, not just Groucho
Best sequence:  The bridge game
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho: "And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does."
(Such a perfect non sequitur that it takes the breath away.)
Harpo Moment: (tie) 1. Folding the bridge table as fast as Chico unfolds it and 2. "I can't understand what's delaying the coffeepot."

A little slow to get going, but with many great routines.  Captain Spaulding's monologue ("I shot an elephant in my pajamas"), "Abie the Fish Man," more Margaret Dumont. "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" is one of the Marx's most memorable tunes.

Monkey Business
Ranking Groucho's name:  no name for the character, so no ranking
Best sequence:  "If a nightingale could sing like you . . . "
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho:  Pardon me while I step into the closet.
(The matter-of-fact way he says this as he walks past Thelma Todd and husband -- as though it's something he does every day.)
Harpo Moment:  His Maurice Chevalier imitation.

The antics about the ship are great, and Thelma Todd is nearly as good as Margaret Dumont as a foil for Groucho. Zeppo's best role, too.

Horse Feathers
: 10
Ranking Groucho's name:  Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (3) -- Nice combo of the stuffy and the vaguely obscene -- what staff is he wagging?
Best sequence:  "Swordfish"
Favorite overlooked line:
Chico: You sing-a high.
Connie: Yes, I have a falsetto voice.
Chico: That's-a funny; my last pupil she had-a false set-a teeth.
(Bad puns, remember?)
Harpo moment: "You can't burn the candle at both ends."
(Shows how anything could be in his coat.)

The Marxes in college.  More great routines, their best "serious" song ("People Will Say I Love You").  Football finale is one of their best -- the brothers were never very good at ending a movie.

Duck Soup
: 10
Ranking Groucho's name:  Rufus T. Firefly (1) -- the best funny name in the history of film.
Best sequence:  Too many to choose one, but I'll give the mirror scene a slight edge over the peanut vendor scenes.
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho:  (When he's locked in the bathroom.) "Let me out, or at least throw me a magazine."
Harpo Moment: His encounter with the bucket of lemonade.

Their best -- comedy perfection.  It's so funny it can cure disease (see Norman Cousin's Anatomy of an Illness)! It's no surprise that Woody Allen used a clip from it in Hannah and Her Sisters. It's also their purest comedy, with no attempts at a serious subplot and the only song is one of the great comedy numbers of all time.

It's hard to believe this film was a flop when it was put out.  It's not that audiences in the 30s weren't used to fast pacing.  I do find the final scenes very disjointed; just a series of random jokes (though very funny ones).  Maybe that was part of it -- last impressions are very important in a movie.

A Night at the Opera
Rating the film:
Ranking Groucho's name:
  Otis P. Driftwood (2) -- a close second to Firefly
Favorite sequence:  "The party of the first part."
Favorite overlooked line:
House detective: (searching for Chico, Harpo, and Alan Jones) This table is set for four.
Groucho: So? My alarm clock is set for eight.
Harpo Moment:  He knocks out Lasspari with a hammer, looks contrite, wakes him up, and bashes him again.

I also love Chico's speech as the Russian pilot ("The first time we get halfway across when we run outta gasoline and gotta go back.").  The strongest of their films plotwise, and the Required Love Interest that ruined so many of their later films was at least tolerable. 

However, I'm not a big fan of the stateroom scene.  Its payoff is weakly staged, as the waiters try hard to look like they're stumbling backwards.  It's amusing, but overrated.

A Day at the Races
Ranking Groucho's name:  Hugo Z. Hackenbush (4) -- Quackenbush would have been better, but otherwise OK.
Best sequence: Tootsi Fruitsi Ice Cream (shows that farce need not always be played at a breakneck pace)
Favorite overlooked line:
Flo: Why, I've never been so insulted in my life!
Groucho: Well, it's early yet.
(If that doesn't encapsulate Groucho, nothing does.)
Harpo moment: "X-ray!  X-Ray"

Good, but a drop off after the incredible stretch of films preceding it.  The phone call to get Groucho's credentials is another classic, though.

Room Service
: 6 or 8
Ranking Groucho's name:  Gordon Miller (12) -- could be anyone, and was.
Best sequence:  salad eating scene.
Favorite overlooked line:  "Jumping Butterballs!"
(It's not a Marx Brother who says it, and it was put there by the censors to replace "God damn it," but after you see the movie, you'll be shouting it for days.)
Harpo Moment:  Eating the salad.  It's like watching an assembly line.

The double number is whether you consider it as a Marx Brothers movie (6) or a pure comedy (8).  The movie is an adaptation of a very funny play, and much of the play shines through.  However, the Marxes are restricted because of that.  They can't be themselves, so for people expecting the Marx Brothers, it's a disappointment.

At the Circus
: 7
Ranking Groucho's name:  J. Cheever Loophole (9) -- too obvious for a lawyer; they're stretching.
Best sequence: Lydia the Tattooed Lady
Favorite overlooked line:
Margaret Dumont:  If no one cares for more coffee, we'll be going.
(everyone rises)
Groucho: I'll have another cup of coffee.
(everyone sits)
(In 1939, the idea was considered so absurd as to get a big laugh; in the 21st century, people think that, if they want another cup of coffee, everyone else should wait.)
Harpo Moment: turning into Santa.

Weak but watchable.  The movie picks up when Dumont is shown again, and it's always nice to see Eve Arden, but the team just wasn't what it used to be.  It's telling that the best routine was a musical number.

Go West
Ranking Groucho's name:  S. Quentin Quayle (8) -- Joke too obvious
Best sequence:  Opening where Groucho tries to swindle Chico.
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho: You love your brother, don't you?
Chico: No, but I'm used to him.
Harpo Moment:  Fastest whiskbroom in the west

Been a while since I've seen this one.  Some of it was OK, but the chase at the end was not good at all.

The Big Store
: 4
Ranking Groucho's name:  Wolf J. Flywheel (5) -- one of the best things about the movie.
Best sequence:  Can't think of anything.
Favorite overlooked line:
The sign on Groucho's car:  "Welcome Admiral Dewey, Hero of Manilla"

Their worst.  Not much comedy and the chase was again a disappointment:  you're just watching stuntmen running around.  A few tolerable scenes with Margaret Dumont, but they only underscore the problems.

A Night in Casablanca
Ranking Groucho's name:  Ronald Korblow (7) -- so so.
Best sequence:  The Packing/Unpacking scene
Best overlooked line:
Chico: Hey boss!  You got a woman out there?
Groucho: No.
Chico: Then go away.  I have one in here.
Harpo moment: the swordfight

Their most underrated film; fewer people have probably seen this one than any film other than Room Service.  The final chase sequence is weak (though an improvement on the previous two), but the scene where Sig Rumann tries to pack to leave Casablanca, hindered by the Marxes, of course -- is pure gold, the best the did since A Day at the Races, equal to many of their best.  (Heresy:  I like it better than the stateroom scene.)

Love Happy
Ranking Groucho's name:  Sam Grunion (6) -- Grunion soundsfunny, and, of course, it's the name of a fish, which are always funny (don't get me started on fish puns).
Best Sequence: Final chase (man, that's saying a lot).
Favorite overlooked line:  Line?  What lines? This is Harpo'smovie.

Barely a Marx Brothers film -- Groucho is in only about four scenes and narrates.  It's about Harpo, with Chico hanging out.  It's not Harpo at his best, either.  As an interesting note, though: it was probably the first film to use product placement in the modern meaning.  The producers were running out of money, so they approached advertisers to use their logos in the final sequence -- for a fee.  That's why you see all the old corporate logos in the final chase.

The Story of Mankind

Included for completeness' sake.  The Marxes didn't appear together.  It's as bad as you've probably heard it was.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Unserious Music

Note:  This was originally written in in 2003 on my website.  I’m moving it to my blog.

Not musical comedy (though I love that).  I mean the composer/performers who made their fame writing and performing humorous songs.  The best of these are rolling on the floor funny.

I've always like comedy in music.  When I was in college, I had a weekly two-hour show of musical weirdness I called "Nothing Serious," where I'd play the oddest cuts I could find, including some by groups not known for their sense of humor (Cream's "Mother's Lament," Procol Harum's "Mabel"), novelty tunes, and pure weirdness (Lol Coxhill, for instance, whose version of "I am the Walrus" -- scroll down to hear an excerpt -- is officially the weirdest song ever recorded.).

But there were some people whose entire output was funny.  They tend to be passed off as "novelty acts," but some of them can be compared favorable to any songwriter you name.  They wrote songs that can still make you laugh today.  Most are long gone, with no one filling their footsteps.  Humor is the ugly stepchild of music these days, ignored because "humor is subjective" and thus may not sell as well as the same old crap.

So, as a respite from serious music, here is a list of people whose music (if you can find it) is sure to make you laugh.


"Pfft in der furher's face": Spike Jones and His City Slickers

The grandfather of them all, Spike Jones started performing in the 40s.  He's actually the last of this group that I heard.  My mother used to sing "All I want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" when I was a kid, but never mentioned Jones.  I was blissfully unaware of him other than hearing the name somewhere and seeing pictures of this guy with a square face wearing a checked sportcoat.

Spike Jones and his washboard abs.It was Dr. Demento that was responsible for me finding out about Jones. I've never actually heard any of his radio shows, but I do respect his work in bringing these performers to light (I believe he's played songs by all the people I'm mentioning).  I had picked up a cassette tape of his in the late 80s:  best novelty tunes of the 1940s.  It had Jones' "Cocktails for Two."

What a revelation!  "Cocktails for Two" is a somewhat romantic and sophisticated song about sharing a quiet drink together.  Until Jones got hold of it, that is.  Each line of the song is punctuated by a cacophony of sounds that is just plain hilarious.  Cowbells, nonsense syllables, gunshots -- you never know what you'll hear next, even if you heard the song several times before.  I think it may be one of his best.

But it has fine company.  Other great songs by him include "Clink, Clink, Another Drink" (with Mel Blanc!), "My Old Flame" (with a corny Peter Lorre imitation), "Der Fuhrer's Face," "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," "Dance of the Hours," and "The William Tell Overture" (though I do find "Beetlebaum" a bit tiresome).

Jones predated rock music (and hated it when it came along), but his songs show a bizarre musicianship; they were as tight a band as ever performed (quite an accomplishment considering how people had to constantly switch off instruments for effect).  He was truly a genius.


"All the world is in tune on a spring afternoon.": Tom Lehrer

Arguable the best songwriter of them all.  Lehrer is also the best-known name on this list these days (at least, in the US), even though he hasn't recorded anything since the mid-60s.  He vies with being the best lyricist of the bunch, his songs just filled with clever wordplay (I'm especially fond of that long group of -gility rhymes in "When You Are Old and Gray."

I discovered Lehrer in the early 60s.  My cousins (Robbie, Andrea, Carla, and Marcia) had a copy of That Was the Year that Was at their house, and I'd listen to it when I visited.  It was amazing.  I was very into political satire at that point (and used to watch That Was the Week That Was on TV, though I didn't recall the songs), and just plain loved his take on current events.  "Pollution" was a special favorite, as was "So Long, Mom," "Who's Next," and "The Vatican Rag," though, being Jewish, I had no idea about what he was singing about (Genuflect?  Rosaries?). 

Now, however, I'm less impressed by this.  Topical humor dates badly, and except for "So Long, Mom" and (sadly) "Pollution," the songs are only funny if they're explained.  I can remember why, but you young 'uns probably would need a long explanation as to what "George Murphy" and "Werner Von Braun" is.

Lehrer never put his photo onto his records.Somehow I also managed to pick up on "Poisoning the Pigeons in the Park," perhaps his best.  I even sung it when I auditioned for one of the Youth on Stage plays.

Then, a few years ago, I stumbled upon the Rhino Records compilation of his first two albums:  Songs by Tom Lehrer and More Songs by Tom Lehrer.  I had heard them once or twice years ago, but now I finally could understand.

They were brilliant.  Favorites include "Be Prepared," "Irish Ballad," "My Home Town," the medley of "love" songs at the end, "The Elements ," -- well, just everything.  And it wasn't just the lyrics.  Just about all the songs had the ability to get into your head and stay there.

Lehrer stopped performing and writing music in the mid-60s; it seems he felt that he had outgrown that aspect of life and it was time to move on.  I respect that decision, but damn, I wish he hadn't quit.


"Mud, mud, glorious mud": Flanders and Swann

I rediscovered Flanders and Swann on New Year's Eve 2005, when the local First Night celebration had a couple of singers performing their songs. Susan asked me who they were and I had the perfect description:  The British version of Tom Lehrer.

Flanders and Swann contemplate mudThe two composed the songs together:  Michael Flanders writing the lyrics (and usually singing lead) and Donald Swann playing piano and writing the music.  Flanders was chunky and bearded and was in a wheelchair (from polio); Swann thin and tall and wore glasses. 

Up until that New Year's, I actually had only heard the once, and not on record.  Their show, "At the Drop of Another Hat," was broadcast on TV in the early 60s.  I had enjoyed Lehrer at that point and heard the comparison and decided to watch. 

I don't remember much about it.  I enjoyed it, and the songs were great, but one viewing was not enough to get them to stick in my mind.  I do remember being impressed that Flanders was in a wheelchair; you didn't see that sort of thing on TV in the 60s.  I wanted to hear more, but never saw the album, and eventually forgot about them until the Wombat sang their masterpiece "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear" at an Albacon.  And then, the performance at First Night, which inspired me to get one of their CDs.

Flanders was as good with lyrics as Lehrer was, and Swann wrote tunes just about as good.  Like Lehrer, they did topical songs ("All Gall" about Charles DeGaulle) and those with a scientific bent ("First and Second Law," dealing with thermodynamics the way Lehrer dealt with chemistry in "The Elements").

But Flanders and Swann were very British, and a lot of their humor doesn't travel well.  A few of their topical songs are a bit dated.  But their best are timeless, with a dry British wit.  Something like "The Gnu Song" is like Dr. Seuss set to music, while "The Gas Man Cometh," is as relevant today as ever.  "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear" is still great, and their signature tune -- "The Hippopotamus Song" -- is a lovely bit of nonsense.


"And they say that we'll have fun if it stops raining": Allan Sherman

My Son, the Allan ShermanI originally didn't want to include Sherman; I was only considering people who actually wrote words andlyrics.  It's one thing to rewrite lyrics to an existing tune and a whole different dimension to be good enough to create your own tune yourself.  And about (not particularly) "Weird" Al Yankovic, the less said the better, other than that both Larry Siegel and Frank Jacobs (who invented the genre for Mad Magazinea year before Sherman), Sherman, and Christine Nelson did it better and earlier, and Spike Jones, Lol Coxhill, and Vivian Stanshall were gloriously weirder on their worst day than Yankovic has been in his entire career.

Sherman gained fame putting lyrics to existing songs:  "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" for instance.  Even after all this time, he is still the best of it.  It's hard to see just what a sensation he was when My Son, the Folk Singer came out.  It was a time where comedy albums still sold well (some of the biggest best sellers of the early 60s were The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart and The First Family), and Sherman was one of the most successful.  His first three albums went to #1 on the album charts.  Not comedy album chart -- they went to #1 competing against all other songwriters.

I also remember him from a book he wrote:  The Rape of the A.P.E., a history of sexual mores in 40s and 50s America and how the sexual revolution of the 60s changed.  Fascinating read. 


"Busses do go.  Not where you go.": Christine Nelson

Christine NelsonSome of the names here are pretty obscure, but no one is as obscure as Christine Nelson.  Even Blotto might ring a few bells, but Nelson is so forgotten that you can't even Google her.  (Well, not entirely true.  A quick search shows her at #4, with a New York Times minibiography that mentions her film career -- and gets it wrong).  When I went to look her up a few years ago (and not knowing her name), it took some very diligent goolesearching to finally come up with it.

If you know Allan Sherman well, you can identify her (though probably not by name):  She sang with him as a duet in his classic "Sarah Jackman."  It's a good bet you don't know anything about her album (built upon that claim to fame) "Did'Ja Come to Play Cards or to Talk."  It's never been on CD, though you can find LP versions of it on the Internet for ridiculously high prices.

You know, it's rare to find someone this obscure in the days of Google.  I can say anything I want about her without fear of contradiction.  She had the greatest voice in the history of music, with an eight octave range, and her songs were so good that dozens of composers gave up their careers after hearing one song, knowing they could never dream of topping her.

Well, no.  She was funny, but not successful enough to be more than an obscure footnote. 

But I had her album years ago, and it was good.  (I actually don't remember if she wrote any of the songs or lyrics, but I'm keeping her here, anyway.) Most impressive was "Driving Test":

Left is the clutch and right is the gas
And the brake pedal is just in between
Left is the clutch and right is the gas
And you stop on red and go on green.
If they would give out medals
For mixing up the pedals
I would have more than England's queen.
Every driver on the road
Looks like he'll explode
When I go on red and stop on green.

Other songs (like "Don't Leave the Table," "Pokeracci," "Gripes," and the title song) were about playing cards (and the games played at the table without cards). "Dr Moe" was, IIRC, about a gynecologist (and it all went over my head when I listened to it). You can find a track list at

The album was quite funny.  I'd love to hear it again, and I'm glad to give her a place on the Internet.


"'Cause the Humanoid Boogie's Full of Humanoid Rock 'n Roll": The Bonzo Dog Band

The Bonzos are my musical heroes.

I first found out about them in the late 60s. I was working in my father's store with a guy named Keith Cowan.  We were experimenting with selling records, and Keith, who was a few years older than me, would go over the list of new releases and pick out groups to order.

The noises of your bodies are part of this record.One was the Bonzo Dog Band's second album,Urban Spaceman (note to any British reading this:  that was the US version of The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse, with the title song added).  He insisted we order it, describing one of the songs of the previous album as "one insane crescendo."

When I came in, I was fascinated.  I had just gotten my first stereo system, and this was the second album I ever bought (after Sgt. Pepper).

The album was eye-opening.  The best way to describe the Bonzos was "The British Spike Jones."  They were even more insane than Jones, and did it all to a rock beat.  The songs were clever and weird and I loved them.

The core of the group were Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes (who later wrote music for Monty Python), "Legs" Larry Smith (nicknamed for his tap dancing skills), Roger Ruskin Spear, and Rodney Slater, along with various other members that came and went.

The Bonzos produced four albums:  Gorilla, Urban Spaceman, Tadpoles, and Keynsham before breaking up.  They got together once more for an inferior reunion album, Let's Make Up and Be Friendly.  The first three are pure comic genius.

Gorilla (recorded under their original name of "The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band") included both original songs and covers and contains their most famous cut, "The Intro and the Outro," in which the band is introduced . . . and then some.  They claim people like John Wayne on xylophone, Adoph Hitler on vibes, Eric Claption on ukulele, Roy Rogers on Trigger.  It goes on for about three minutes, with all sorts of absurd names being brought into the mix. 

The album also includes such classics as "Death Cab for Cutie" (yes, that's where they got their name).  Stanshall sings it in a dead-on Elvis impersonation which can be seen on the Beatles'sMagical Mystery Tour video), "Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold" (with Spike-Jones-like bizarre instrumentation), "I'm Bored," "The Sound of Music" (the insane crescendo), "Look Out There's a Monster Coming," and several others.

Their next was even better.  It was all original songs, led (in the US version) by their UK hit single "I'm the Urban Spaceman" (produced by Apollo C. Vermouth, a pseudonym for Paul McCartney, who also played banjo on it).  I also loved "My Pink Half of the Drainpipe" (about a boring neighbor), "Humanoid Boogie," "Trouser Press" (which gave its name to a rock magazine) . . . well, the entire album.

The third masterpiece, Tadpoles, was evidently made up of songs from their TV appearances in the UK.  Their version of "Monster Mash" is by far the best ever. "Ali-Baba's Camel" is what Steve Martin wished he could have done with "King Tut." "Doctor Jazz" was another hilarious jazz jam; "Mr. Apollo" was a send up of bodybuilders; "Hunting Tigers Out in 'Indiah'" is a great children's song.  There's not a weak cut on the album.

Keynsham was a step down:  funny, but not as insane.  There was a stress between Stanshall and Innes, the two main songwriters.  Stanshall was a madman; Innes was more quietly funny and satiric.  Still, "Tent" and "Busted" were classics, and the rest of the songs, though good, were more mildly amusing that out and out assaults.

After the breakup, Let's Make Up and Be Friendly was like most reunion albums:  a shadow of the original.  The cover actually showed Bonzo, the dog the group was named after (not Reagan's monkey); the original Bonzo was a very successful comic strip in the UK.

The group continued to show up in the UK music scene for years.  Stanshall appeared on radio with Keith Moon, spent some time in a mental institution, recorded four albums, and had his biggest musical success with his co-songwriting credit with Steve Winwood on "Arc of a Diver."  Sadly, Stanshall died in an apartment fire in 1995.

Innes joined up with Eric Idle to write songs for Monty Python (e.g., "I Love the Yangtzee" and "Brave Sir Robin," which he sang in Holy Grail).  He also wrote all the Rutles songs and played Ron Nasty in the film.  He's still writing and performing (with five albums at least) and, like everyone, has a web page.  Some nice MP3s of his work and a couple of Bonzo songs he wrote.

Roger Ruskin Spear put out the album Electric Shocks, the closest thing to a Bonzo Dog Band Album after the group broke up.  "Legs" Larry showed up tap dancing on Elton John's "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself."

The Bonzos are legendary in the UK.  It was nice to know that, when Tony Blair used the phrase "Cool Britannia," people in the UK chastised him for using the name from a Bonzo song.  They were big on TV (and children's shows) there, and people still remember. 

And the Bonzos are certainly one of the top rock groups for compilations:  All Music Guide lists 15 of them, or three time the number of albums they released while together.  In fact, the original albums are out of print, since the anthology "Cornology" has everything on the albums, plus singles (though, oddly, it fails to include their "No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Get In.").

Everything you want to know about the Bonzos can be found at theBonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band Page (which really makes this article redundant, but it's my web page, so I can do what I want).


"Santa Doesn't Cop Out On Dope":  Martin Mull

imageHow could I have forgotten Martin Mull? He's one of the best known names among these, but not for his songs.  Mull has had a very successful acting career, with over 100 titles listed in the IMDB.But before he came to prominence in shows like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Roseanne; and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and in movies like My Bodyguard, and Mr. Mom, he put out several successful comedy music albums (and before that, he was a successful visual artist).

Mull was pretty much a solo act. He had a nice, whitebread sense of the absurd.  He was wryly amusing, and also knew how to write a good tune.

Probably his best album is his live Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture in Your Living Room.  Part music, part standup, it was recorded in front of a small live audience.  Some of the jokes are self-explanatory:  "Dueling Tubas," for instance.  "Licks Off Of Records" is about a musician who can only play music he's heard on record.  "Ukulele Blues" is upper class white man's blues played -- quite well -- on ukulele ("I woke up this afternoon/saw both cars were gone/Well, I feel so sad and lonely/I threw my drink across the lawsn").  And then there's the politically uncorrect "(How Could I Not Miss) A Girl Your Size."  It's all made better by Mull's standup commentary.

His album Normal was also pretty good, with the title song, "Wood Shop" (with Crosby, Stills, Black and Decker), and "The Blacks Are Giving Me the Blues."

The albums sales were weak, and Mull turned his interests to acting.  He did do a couple of Christmas singles:  "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope," and "Santa Fly" (the latter jumping on the blaxploitation music bandwagon).


"White stuff on my nose": Blotto

Almost as obscure as Christine Nelson, Blotto was nearly as good as the Bonzos.  They are slightly better known than Nelson, since their top song, "I Wanna be a Lifeguard," was a staple on MTV in its early days. 

Hello, My name is Blotto. What's Yours?Blotto was a local group in the Albany area.  The original lineup was Broadway Blotto, Bowtie Blotto, Sergeant Blotto, Blanche Blotto, Cheese Blotto, and Lee Harvey Blotto.  Blanche left the group and was replaced by Chevrolet Blotto because he happened to have the right last name.  (I knew Blanche in college, BTW, and Susan knew her in high school.  Small world.)

Blotto was well polished for a local act (the core had had some success as The Star Spangled Washboard Band), and wrote most of their own songs.  "I Wanna Be a Lifeguard" was a surf music parody about a shoe salesman's secret dream ("Summer blondes revealing tan lines/I'll make more moves than Allied Van Lines").  "We Are the Nowtones" was about the ultimate cover band.  "My Baby's the Star of a Driver's Ed Movie" parodied death rock.  "Heavy Metal Head" parodied that genre.

Other than "Lifeguard," Blotto never caught on.  In their heyday, they only produced EPs, not an album.  Their songs have been collected and put on CD and they still get together from time to time.

Of all the people listed here, Blotto is the only ones still making music (though they have done very little new since the 80s).  You can find out about them and download some MP3s of their music at